F. Frigeri u.a. (Hg.): New Histories of Art in the Global Postwar Era

New Histories of Art in the Global Postwar Era. Multiple Modernisms

Frigeri, Flavia; Handberg, Kristian
Studies in Art Historiography
London 2021: Routledge
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Anita Hosseini, Warburg Institute, London

Released in March last year, this anthology focuses on the question of the globalisation of art history with a focus on modernism, its history of development and the possibility of its expansion to include multiple modernisms. Consequently, as the editors Flavia Frigeri and Kritian Handberg point out, it pursues a programme of breaking through Western-centred perspectives and thus decentralising modernisms. The central question is what a global perspective on modernity can be and how local modernisms play a role in this. The aim of the publication is "to provide readers with a set of coordinates that can help reframe the geographies of modernism, its conceptual contours and its motivations." (p. 2)

According to the editors, the term "multiple modernisms" given in the subtitle goes back to the sociologist Shmuel N. Eisenstadt, who proposed a break with fixed conventions in the study of modernity. 1 Global networks and investigations of local practices require a disruption and questioning of the established Western canon as well as its narratives.2 By adjusting and expanding the objects of investigation, institutions and practices as well as the questions and methods, taking into account "sets of specific aesthetic, cultural, political and personal histories, conditions and relations" (p. 6), the determinants of modernity in Western narratives can be highlighted and questioned within a transnational and transcultural perspective.

It takes as its temporal framework the post-war period, understood as a 'nonsynchronous event' (p. 3), without a universal start and end point, but which specifically encompasses the 1950 – 1980s, i.e. the period after the Second World War and during the Cold War. The post-war period is particularly suitable for the art historical study of a globalised modernity, as it was shaped by geopolitical innovations and re-structuring, by international cooperation and technological achievements, which had an influence on the genesis of new art, the expansion of the art market and consequently also on curatorial practices.

The fifteen contributions of the volume are preceded by the prologue "Art History's Work-in Pro(re)gress. Reflections on the Multiple Modernities Project" by Terry Smith, in which the art historian argues for a "radical art historical revisionism" (p. 13) of modernity under global conditions. At the same time, he makes clear that it is only through the discourse on multiple modernisms that the camouflaged Western self-referentiality and the categorical classification of art under the heading of 'nation' in Western art historiography and exhibition practices is revealed. (p. 15) Here, the relationality of Western and non-Western art practices, their reciprocal positioning and mutual consideration plays a crucial role.
The various individual case studies in the following contributions deal with these very aspects. Divided into three parts, each focusing on 1. individuals, 2. canon formation and 3. institutions, the articles in this volume balance on the threshold between local, national and traditional as well as transcultural, international and modernist practices of art production, art historiography, art criticism, their respective institutions and exhibition practices. The polyphony of multiple modernisms as well as the opportunities and challenges to art history associated with them are palpable in the contributions.

The first part of the publication refers primarily to migration movements of artists, and their experiences in the diaspora. But it would not be enough to limit this section to this description alone, for the contributions open up a view of a colonial history of modernity and its dynamics, of art historiography and art criticism. The status of the cosmopolitan is expanded beyond the Eurocentric and transferred as "minoritarian cosmopolitanism" (p. 32) to non-European actors who, through their international positioning, perceive their own cultural heritage in relation to the world and develop new artistic formal languages based on it. At the same time, it is emphasised that decolonising the discipline of art history is not only done by compiling "alternative combinations of artists and venues, but it is important to mobilise aesthetic categories that cut across conventional modernist narratives."(p. 46) The dilemma faced by non-Western actors in whether to follow or resist the dictates of Western modernism (pp. 60-62) reveals moreover that Western modernism and colonialism are two sides of the same coin (p. 66). The contributions in this section are thus concerned with the relationship between the individual, society and the world and with revealing inspirations by, adaptations and appropriations of, as well as resistances to Western modernity.

The second part examines the conditions and manifestations of various modernities in the respective places of origin and their external impact. These are placed in relation to the Western canon, efforts towards internationalisation, domestic and geopolitical challenges as well as questions of identity politics. Vividly presented case studies of states such as China, Iran, Ethiopia and Brazil underline the influence of political programmes and cultural-political agenda on local modernisms. At the same time, however, the hegemonic power of Western art history is exposed, which misinterprets through expectations (pp.116-117) or creates an atmosphere of "burden of representation"3, according to which an "orientalism-in-reverse" (p. 135), but also supposed "tribal authenticity" (p. 173) are evoked. This part is thus concerned with the significance of indigenous and traditional, national and international practices and localisations, their reference to the market, international visibility and the resulting inclusion or marginalisation.

The focus of the third part is on institutions, their exhibition practices and the expansion of museum collections. Lecture tours, new didactic exhibition displays, biennials and international networks serve on the one hand to make non-Western art visible, but on the other hand also to disseminate the narratives and conditions of Western modernism. One case study addresses the difficulty in incorporating indigenous and local art into curatorial strategies based on a purportedly universalist, but actually Western art history (p. 213). Another shows how the claim to universalism leads to a blind spot vis-à-vis the political component of abstract art (p. 194). Further contributions deal with the role of art criticism in the perception of transcultural perspectives and national aesthetics (pp. 220-223) as well as the negotiation, development and establishment of a modernity of one's own through the targeted expansion of collections and exhibition programmes (pp. 238-240).

This anthology, which is well worth reading, takes the reader on a journey that opens their eyes to artistic practices in Asia, Africa and Latin America in the second half of the 20th century. One problem that remains is that, while aiming to decentralise modernity, the case studies remain focused on the periphery’s relation to a central Western idea of modernity and vice versa. However, a wealth of new perspectives presented in this publication show the necessity of developing and expanding methods resonating with the editors’ call for a self-reflection of Western art history. The reader is inspired to participate in the project of "multiple modernisms" and to adopt a new, expanded and self-critical attitude towards his or her own practice and discipline.

1 Shmuel N. Eisenstadt, Multiple Modernities, in: Daedalus 129 (2000) 1, pp. 1–29, here p. 1.
2 Partha Mitter, Modernism. Art History and Avant-Garde Art from the Periphery Author, in: The Art Bulletin 90 (2008) 4, pp. 531–48.
3 Monica Juneja, Global Art History and the ‘Burden of Representation’, in: Hans Belting et al (eds.), Global Studies. Mapping Contemporary Art and Culture, Ostfildern 2011, pp. 274-297.

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